Dolley Madison: The Fame Years

Rotunda’s Dolley Madison Digital Edition, edited by Holly C. Shulman, has been updated with 158 new documents, 543 new and revised identifications of people, places, and terms, and two new editorial essays.

This seventh installment takes the reader through 1845. By the end of the year, Dolley was settled in the nation’s capital, and would never return to Montpelier—or any other place in Virginia. She had established a close friendship with President Tyler, and after James K. Polk was inaugurated on 4 March 1845, she created a warm relationship with both the president and his wife. In addition, the reader may follow her friendships and her social life, and how she dined and partied with the elite of the Polk administration. She continued to receive requests for autographs, both hers and her husband’s, and received dedications for books and poems. This is the Dolley Madison of fame.

Concurrently, Dolley lived a far different private life. Her financial situation was precarious. Her brother-in-law, General William Madison, had filed suit against her, and that proceeded even after William’s death. She asked for loans, and could only repay her debts in small amount. Her finances shot, her son still in Virginia, her slaves divided between Henry Moncure, John Payne Todd, and herself, she considered emancipating her husband’s valet, Paul Jennings, but in the end rented him out to President Polk.

The image above was painted a half century after her death. The illustrator, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, depicted Dolley presiding over a ball held on 8 December 1812 and imagined her accepting the colors of the just-captured British vessel Macedonia, walking toward it in readiness to stamp on the British flag. The ball did take place, the flag was brought there, but Dolley never trod on it, nor did James Madison even attend. The picture reflects one of the myths that by 1845 had grown up around Mrs. Madison.